WHAT’S happening in the EU election campaign firth of the UK? Whether the UK leaves or remains, continental Europe will still be on our doorstep and still be our largest trading partner. The outcome of this month’s European Parliament elections will have major repercussions across the Channel for the EU and for the UK.

The EU may be one of the world’s three major economic blocs, but it is arguably the weakest, squeezed between the US and China. Some EU member states suffer political paralysis, others face fiscal and demographic challenges, while most lag in the global technology race – including Germany, the heart of the system. The euro crisis of 2010 has been put to bed thanks to the European Central Bank printing money (aka quantitative easing). But the underlying weaknesses in productivity, growth and tech leadership mean the EU is in danger of relegation to the economic second division.

This might not play big in the voters’ minds but it dominates the agenda of the business community and political elites, particularly in France. Traditionally, the EU (and its previous incarnations) was dominated by a Franco-German alliance. The French ran the politics while the Germans provided the economic muscle. This marriage of convenience began to deteriorate when reunification in 1990 turned Germany into the EU’s dominant political (as well as economic) force.

France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, was elected on a Blairite platform to “reform” the domestic French economy (ie impose neoliberalism) and reboot European economic integration to help to meet US and Chinese competition. Local resistance by the gilets jaunes has prevented an increasingly unpopular Macron from completing any internal reforms. But he has also been blocked at an EU level by Angela Merkel. This emerging Franco-German fault line is key to understanding what is at stake in this month’s EU elections.

Much to Macron’s surprise, the Germans have told the naive French president where he can stick his plan for accelerated European unity. Crudely, Macron wants to create a common EU budget and taxation system – with himself and the German chancellor in charge of the money. Translated, Macron wants to slash tax and spending across the EU in order to make the European economy “competitive” with the rival American and Chinese blocs, while doubtless finding a few secret subsidies to assuage the gilets jaunes at home.

This plan is bonkers and only an arrogant, inexperienced French intellectual would come up with it. The smaller EU states are still recovering from the austerity imposed after the euro crisis. They are in no mood for another round of cuts designed to help ailing French capitalism fend off American and Chinese imports. Nor is Berlin ready to endorse further European integration – code for Paris running the show again. The rise of anti-EU populism in Germany already threatens the political grip of the Christian Democrats, the traditional party of German big business. Both Chancellor Merkel and her designated successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, have told Macron: “Thanks but no thanks.”

In fact, the socially conservative Kramp-Karrenbauer – known as AKK – may represent the apotheosis of a new German dominance in the EU. Rather than running Europe as a Franco-German alliance after Brexit, AKK aims to demote Macron and Paris to bit players. She has already proposed that France renounce its permanent seat on the UN Security Council in favour of a European seat. This hardline German attitude does not mean Berlin is against further European integration – just that it should be on German terms. – which means Berlin wants to take control of the incoming EU Commission in Brussels.

The commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, was elected by the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process. Under this system, the pan-EU political group with the most MEPs will chose his successor. If this is the centre-right European People’s Party, then the likely appointee will be Manfred Weber, former conservative boss of Bavaria and Angela Merkel’s hand-picked choice for the job.

However, Weber is no shoo-in.

A big vote for the populist and neofascist right could deny the EPP a plurality of MEPs, making the Party of European Socialists (which includes UK Labour) the kingmaker. The latest polls have the EPP on 171 seats and the socialist bloc on 152, assuming UK MEPs take their seats. The populists and far right are currently predicted to get about 209 seats.

Meanwhile, Macron is trying to block use of the Spitzenkandidaten election system in favour of a stich-up by France and Germany. In the end, he might back Weber as commission head, but in return for concessions from Germany. Macron may be overplaying his hand, though. I wouldn’t fancy his chances of trying to blackmail Berlin and getting away with it.

All this will be grist to the mill of left-leaning opponents of EU membership, including my old comrade Jim Sillars. My reply is that the anti-EU left is in danger of an abstract and sterile propagandism when it comes to the elections. In these elections, it is imperative we defeat the populist and racist far right, or risk giving them increased political momentum.

True, the EU project remains ultimately designed to defend the interests of big European capital against US and now resurgent Chinese competition. Yet it is riven with deep and irreconcilable contradictions. Those between German and French business needs; between the city of London and rival financial groupings in Frankfurt, Dusseldorf and Paris; and between giant manufacturers with pan-European supply chains, who want minimum regulation and taxes, versus local companies who want protection and subsidy.

But above all, the EU – with its vast institutional structures and programmes – is a living social entity that encompasses, on the one hand, the contradictory needs of soulless, capitalist business; and on the other hand, the wants, hopes and desires of literally hundreds of millions of working people, including immigrants. These working people don’t live or toil in a social or economic vacuum. They are EU citizens and over decades their struggles, campaigns, strikes and votes have had an impact on how Europe works.

The political point regarding the EU elections is to intervene in these living contradictions, not to sit idly by while the populists mobilise; or while French and German capital fights for supremacy in Brussels; or while rapacious finance capital in London seeks to protect its tax haven status.

The point is not to analyse the world, the point is to change it for the better. Anyone who thinks that is achieved by voting for the anti-EU right is making a sad mistake.

To compete against the US and China, German big business will be forced to reduce costs in its supply chains across the EU by reducing real wages. As America turns isolationist and populist, Germany and the EU will be forced to increase defence spending at the expense of social welfare programmes. Much of the German and European banking system is ridden with secret debts and lurks on the verge of insolvency.

All this is a threat to the interests of ordinary European citizens. But simply denouncing the EU as a capitalist plot gets us nowhere in practical terms. Let’s use these elections to mobilise a popular, progressive alternative.